Hanging Together

Whistleblowers hook up and use technology to protect themselves and amplify their effect.

As national security is redefined, so are those who voice concern about it from within government. Whistleblowers in this arena no longer are lonely voices sacrificing their careers when they object to policy and operations. Today, they and their advocates have become an organized bloc, often using the Internet and the mainstream media to level charges while remaining anonymous and hoping to treble their impact and reach.

The nascent National Security Whistleblowers Coalition, for example, could be the harbinger of a stronger form of internal dissent that better protects individuals and could have a far greater effect on national security policy than did whistleblowers in the past.

In May 2002, as the Bush administration began a concerted campaign to convince the world that Iraq needed to be invaded because Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, Air Force Lt. Col. Karen Kwiatkowski settled into a new assignment as an analyst at the Pentagon's Near East and South Asia Bureau, one of six regional policy sections.

A year from retirement, Kwiatkowski didn't want a new assignment but was told she had no choice. Within a few months, however, the 20-year veteran staffer became suspicious of talking points on Iraq, terrorism and weapons of mass destruction developed by the Office of Special Plans within the bureau. She was responsible for using the talking points to write briefing papers for senior policymakers. She says the talking points didn't appear to be based on sound intelligence but were instead crafted to sell the war.

Out of fear of retaliation and losing her retirement benefits, Kwiatkowski didn't report or go public with her concerns. Instead, she began to write anonymously about what she was thinking and experiencing for two Web sites under the moniker "Deep Throat Returns: Insider Notes From the Pentagon." She says the writings allowed her to vent frustration. The postings also represented some of the first information made public about the OSP. Democratic lawmakers and other critics have since charged that the OSP exaggerated or misrepresented intelligence on the status of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, and the Pentagon's inspector general launched an investigation in November into whether the office conducted unauthorized, unlawful or inappropriate intelligence activities.

Kwiatkowski retired shortly after the Iraq invasion and has since written publicly, under her own name, about the OSP and what she experienced. In hindsight, she says her biggest regret is not taking evidence-including classified information-out of her office and giving it to people or organizations so it could have been made public.

Dozens of current and former government employees and contractors working in national security say they have grappled with an enormous dilemma when it comes to reporting known or perceived wrongdoing. The stakes arguably never have been higher: the specter of terrorism lurks and the country is at war. But reporting problems inside agencies can lead to retaliation, costing employees their careers, reputations and personal relationships.

Within the last few years, national security whistleblowers and their advocates have become more organized in order to report wrongdoing and push for better protections. The Internet has proved to be one of their most powerful tools. For example, Kwiatkowski used Web sites to get out information, something she says couldn't have been done 10 years ago.

Another example is an e-mail list within the Federal Air Marshal Service. About two years ago, a group of air marshals started developing the list to communicate about aviation security issues. A marshal who asked to remain anonymous says they add to the list people who express interest in aviation security issues, including reporters. They also subscribe to Google alerts, which provides easy access to stories published across the Internet. Those stories are forwarded to the e-mail list. They've also begun working with bloggers to circulate information.

Sometimes, information sent over the e-mail list or posted on blogs has prompted reporters from mainstream publications to do stories on aviation security issues. In this way, the marshals have been able to expose problems without identifying themselves. "The Internet is everything now," the marshal says. "If it wasn't for the Internet, where would we be?"

Whistleblowers also are finding strength in numbers. The National Security Whistleblowers Coalition formed in 2004 to organize current and former government employees and contractors. The group was spearheaded by former FBI contract language specialist Sibel Edmonds, herself a whistleblower.

Edmonds was fired in March 2002 after alleging that there were security breaches, mismanagement and possible espionage within the FBI's translation unit in late 2001 and early 2002. The Justice Department's inspector general issued a report last January concluding that the FBI failed to properly investigate charges made by Edmonds and that she was fired mainly for bringing forth the accusations. Edmonds appealed to the Supreme Court, which announced in late November that it would not hear her case. She vowed to continue building the coalition's strength and reach. The coalition now has more than 60 members from the CIA and the Defense, Homeland Security, Justice, State, Energy and Treasury departments.

"We are here to stay," Edmonds says. "We have different ideologies, we have different personalities, we have different agencies, but we have a common goal." That aim, she says, is accountability, which includes strong congressional oversight and protections for employees who disclose suspected wrongdoing.

At the top of the coalition's agenda is pushing through legislation that gives national security whistleblowers more protection. The 1989 Whistleblower Protection Act does not cover federal or contract employees working for the CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency, National Imagery and Mapping Agency, National Security Agency, the FBI and "any other executive agency determined by the president to have as its principal function the conduct of foreign intelligence or counterintelligence activities." Members of the coalition have been fighting in Congress for protections at those agencies. The fight with Republicans on the House Government Reform Committee has been particularly bruising.

The committee marked up a bill in September that gives more protection to employees covered by the Whistleblower Protection Act. Committee Chairman Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., and Rep. Todd Platts, R-Pa., however, led opposition to an amendment that would have extended the bill's protections to national security employees, a move that outraged members of the coalition. "This is where we need whistleblowers the most, to improve their organizations and correspondingly protect U.S. citizens," former FBI counterterrorism agent John Vincent wrote to Davis at the time.

During the markup, Davis said he was ready to work with "respectable" whistleblower advocacy organizations, such as the Project on Government Oversight and the Government Accountability Project. Absent from his pronouncement was mention of the National Security Whistleblowers Coalition.

The coalition is now developing what it terms "model legislation" for whistleblowers. It provides protection to all federal employees, contractors and subcontractors who have provided or are about to provide information they reasonably believe constitutes a threat to national security, public health or public safety. The bill specifically would prohibit agencies from revoking security clearances of employees who report protected disclosures. William Weaver, an associate professor at the University of Texas at El Paso who specializes in executive branch secrecy and governmental abuse, says revoking security clearances has become the most common tactic used by agencies against whistleblowers. And, in the national security arena, no security clearance means no job. The legislation Weaver helped write would make retaliatory actions against covered personnel a felony punishable by imprisonment up to 10 years and up to a $50,000 fine.

The coalition also is building a broad network of organizations calling for the Government Accountability Office to conduct an investigation into how much the government has spent to litigate and repress whistleblower activity in national security matters. GAO issued a report in 2003 finding that the Energy Department alone reimbursed contractors $330.5 million for litigation costs associated with 1,895 whistleblower cases from 1998 through March 2003. Coalition members suspect that the cost to taxpayers for litigating national security cases across government is in the billions of dollars.

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